Across Europe, the "rules" for being royal vary widely. In most of the monarchies, there are clearly documented and followed laws and/or guidelines that define who has royal status as well as who is in the Line of Succession. You might be surprised to learn, however, that the most well-known and well-recognized monarchy is actually the one with the most confusing, broadest, and least well-followed. If you haven't been paying attention in the last few years, I'll give you a hint about which monarchy seems to be "winging" it from moment to moment: it's abbreviation is U.K. In the last 23 years, the British Royal Family has been adapting its own well-established guidelines on what, to some, seems to be a rather case-by-case basis. Before we get into the whys and wherefores of how this is actually a long-term strategic plan on the part of the brand new King Charles III, looks take a quick look at how it works in the other Kingdoms.
King Philippe and the next monarch
Elisabeth Duchess of Brabant
Photo by Michel Gronemberger,
Royal Palace, Brussels
The most recently formed European monarchy, the Kingdom of the Belgians was formed in 1831 and implemented agnatic primogeniture succession plan. This meant that only males and only male-line descendants of King Leopold I could become King. Historically, this has been a fairly small dynasty, but it always managed to have such an heir even if he had to skip from uncle to nephew or brother to brother. This was finally changed in 1991 when cognatic primogeniture was introduced, allowing women to be eligible and for the line of succession to follow birth order. Eligibility was applied to living dynasts, but the order of succession was not retroactive. In practice, this meant that only the legitimate descendants of King Albert II are in the line. His illegitimate daughter Delphine is barred by being born out of wedlock even though the courts granted her and her children royal status in 2021. The children of King Leopold III by his second wife, a morganatic marriage, (my post about that marriage) are also barred from accession. Likewise the grandchildren in this line do not have royal status. Interestingly, Belgium is the only European monarchy that has an interregnum between monarchs. The new monarch does not accede until taking an oath before Parliament. In the other monarchies, accession happens immediately upon the death or abdication of the previous monarch. Royal titles are granted to all children and grandchildren of a monarch regardless of the gender of the child or the parent.
|Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (center) |
with her sisters, Queen Anne Marie
of Greece (left) and Princess Benedikte
Photo by Keld Navntoft, Kongehuset
|King Willem Alexander and the next|
monarch Amalia Princess of Orange
Photo by RVD - Martijn Beekman
In the last 125 years, The Netherlands may have introduced the most changes to it succession rules and royal family definitions, mostly by necessity. When King Willem III's adult sons died with issue, there was a crisis as he only had left an infant daughter and girls were strictly banned. So they changed it to allow girls if there were no eligible male heirs. Thus, Wilhelmina became Queen as a child. She had an only child, another girl. Then her daughter had all daughters. Finally, Queen Beatrix had a trio of sons. (Here's my post about the Queen streak in the Netherlands.) Then, changing societal norms led the Dutch to adopt absolute primogeniture in 1983. Of course, Beatrix's oldest son, the current King Willem Alexander has a trio of daughters so no gender differentiation would have happened any way. One of the most interesting things about the Dutch monarchy is that it has severely limited who is in the Line of Succession to a very small list of people based on the proximity of blood kinship to the current monarch. Since they also have a well-established tradition of abdication, that means some people get dropped from the list every few decades. The proximity limits succession to the current monarch's children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces/nephews, and aunts/uncles. Cousins of the monarch are not included. Currently, there are only eight people in the line. His nieces by his late brother Prince Friso are not included because Floris and his wife did not receive official permission to marry. Royal titles have also changed. The grandchildren of Queen Juliana were all granted princely titles (if the parents received permission to marry) but the grandchildren of Queen Beatrix who were not in the direct line are styled as Count or Countess. It will be interesting to see what happens when King Willem Alexander's daughters start families, but that may be awhile since oldest is currently 18.
|King Harald and the next two monarchs|
Crown Prince Haakon and
Princess Ingrid Alexandra
Photo by Kimm Saatvedt, Det kongelige hoff
Since the modern Norwegian monarchy was launched in 1905, it has the smallest royal family. For the first 24 years, it included only three people: King Haakon VII, Queen Maud, and their only child Crown Prince Olav. Olav added a son and two daughters, but female-line grandchildren receive no titles and are not considered members of the royal family. So, when Olav died, the family had only grown to six people: Olav's three children, his daughter-in-law, and his son's two children. Agnatic primogeniture meant that female descendants were not in the line of succession. In 1971, male-preference cognatic primogeniture was adopted allowing women to accede if they had no brothers. This meant that the first child of King Harald, Princess Martha Louise, falls behind her little brother, Crown Prince Haakon. Agnatic primogeniture was adopted in 1990 but was not retroactive meaning that Haakon stays ahead of his big sister, but his first-born child Princess Ingrid Alexandra is ahead of her little brother. More recently, Norway further restricted royal status to only the heir and spouse and the heir's firstborn are styled as Royal Highnesses. The children of a monarch and the heir have princely titles, but they are styled simply has Highness. This change was retroactive impacting the current King's sister and daughter. So, Norway is now specifically planning for a very small royal family into the future.
|King Felipe & Queen Letizia|
photo by Estela de Castro
Spain is now the only European kingdom that continues to use male-preference cognatic primogeniture. When the current King Felipe V's first child was a girl, there was some talk about changing the law to allow her accede even if she had a brother, but there was not a lot of political will behind it. When Felipe only had one other child, another girl, the discussion faded away. (Felipe himself has two older sisters.) Spain is an ancient kingdom with different extant claimants to the throne. However, after the monarchy was restored in 1975 after the dictatorship of General Franco, the legal line of succession was limited to the descendants of King Juan Carlos: so Felipe, his two sisters, and their offspring. Despite the male-preference succession, Juan Carlos granted dukedoms to his daughters and, by extension, their husbands. Early in his reign, King Felipe stripped his sister Infanta Cristina of her title as Duchess of Palma de Mallorca because she and her husband were under investigation for fraud, for which her husband later served prison time. His oldest daughter bares the heir's title as Princess of Asturias, which has been granted to the heir regardless of gender since the 1400s. However, many Princesses of the Asturias were stripped of the title upon the birth of little brothers, sometimes getting it back when the brother died young. (Here's my post about Princesses of Asturias.)
|King Carl XVI Gustav and the next two|
heirs Crown Princess Victoria and
Photo by Thron Ullberg/The Royal Court of Sweden
In the late 19th and throughout most of the 20th Centuries, Sweden came close to ending its royal dynasty because of the strict succession rules put in place when the dynasty was established by Napoleon with his friend, Charles Jean Bernadotte as the new king. As in Norway a century later, the royal family consisted only of a King, Queen, and Crown Prince for many years. Over the decades, the family grew, but the dynasty was limited to male descendants. This created a few collateral branches of the family, but the branches sprouted mostly girls, bringing these royal lines to an end. The strict equal marriage rules also caused havoc as prince after prince refused to marry princesses and lost the right of accession for both themselves and any descendants. By 1973, when King Gustav VI Adolf was succeeded by his grandson, current King Carl XVI Gustav, there was only one person in line for the throne. His uncle Prince Bertil, who only remained eligible as a "spare" to the young king by denying himself marriage to his longtime girlfriend. The old king had also prevented the new king from marrying his lady love, another commoner. So, early in his reign Carl Gustav changed the dynastic rules. Soon both the new king and his aging Uncle Bertil were newlyweds. (Read about their wives in my post Royal Brides of Sweden.) Carl Gustav and his Queen Silvia had a daughter and then a son. When the government decided in 1980 to introduce not just female succession but to not implement male-preference, the King tried to get them to let his infant son maintain his position as Crown Prince, as would later happen in Norway. The Swedes, however, overruled him and the firstborn Victoria became Crown Princess. All of the King's children and grandchildren have also been given dukedoms and princely titles. His sisters are princesses but their children have no royal titles. Initially, the King made all of his descendants Royal Highnesses. Under pressure, however, to reduce the quickly growing Royal House, he removed the "Royal" style from the grandchildren by his two younger children. This change had no impact on the line of succession which includes all of his descendants but only his descendants as the 1980 changes did not apply to his sisters nor to the descendants to earlier princesses nor of the princes who had previously married commoners.
THE UNITED KINGDOM
[Deep breath] Now, back to the United Kingdom, which has so many layers of rules and traditions and restrictions that I wouldn't be surprised if members of the British Royal Family fully understand them themselves. We'll take a look first at succession, which is governed by Acts of Parliament. Then, we will move on to the question of who is and is not royal, which has preoccupied so much public discourse in recent years.
|The "Slimmed Down Monarchy"? The Duchess of Cornwall, Prince of |
Wales, Queen, Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte,
Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Louis on the palace balcony
during the Queen's Platinum Jubilee in 2022.
The succession to the British throne is limited by several acts of Parliament. The monarch has no power to change the succession. He cannot remove anyone. He cannot add any one. He cannot skip any one. Over the years, people have asked me if I thought Charles would be the next king. The answer has always been "yes" because that is what the law says. So, for those who thought William should have succeeded Queen Elizabeth or think that either Prince Harry or Prince Andrew should be removed. Even if they wanted to (which I doubt they do), neither The Queen nor King Charles have the ability to do this.
The acts governing succession include:
The Bill of Right 1689 | Scottish Claim of Rights Act 1689
When the Catholic King James II fled the country in 1688, he was determined to have abandoned the throne for both himself and his newborn son. The next three people in line were Mary and Anne, his Protestant daughters by a previous wife, and his late sister's only son Prince William of Orange, who happened to be Mary's husband. Parliament offered the throne to William and Mary as joint monarchs. This legislation limited the succession first to any descendants of Mary and William, then to Anne and her descendants, then to any children William might have by another wife if Mary predeceased him (which she did). As it happened, none of three of them had children who survived childhood, so very soon, there was no one left in the line of succession. Prior to this, the monarchs did select their own successors, usually following agnatic primogeniture. Part of the Wars of the Roses was based on whether the descendants of an older son's daughter should come before the descendants of a younger son's son. The Tudors were particularly noteworthy for shifting around or waiting until the last minute to choose a successor.
Act of Settlement 1701
With no heirs for the widowed William or his sister-in-law Anne who succeeded him, Parliament tried to re-set the succession again. This time, they skipped over even more Catholic descendants of the Stuart and settled the Succession on Princess Sophia of the Palatinate and her descendants. She was a female-line granddaughter of the Stuart King James VI and I, who had succeeded the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I 100 years earlier. In addition to her Protestantism, Sophia, who had married the Elector of Hanover, had several healthy and a few grandchildren to her credit. From this point, all Catholics and anyone who married a Catholic, and anyone who was not in communion with the Church of England (by then firmly Protestant) was barred from the Line of Succession. Succession continued to follow male-preference primogeniture, with all sons and their descendants moving ahead of any daughters and their descendants. The Hanoverians were quite prolific. Three centuries later, Electress Sophia of Hanover has about 6,000 living descendants. There is no official list of everyone but it would take quite a massacre for the person at the end of the line to make it to the throne.
Succession to the Crown Act 2013
In 2013, the UK and the other dominions who share the British monarch as Head of State, at last adopted gender-neutral accession. This was not applied retroactively to women who were already in the line of succession. For instance, Anne Princess Royal did not suddenly jump forward six places ahead of her younger brothers and their children. Princess Charlotte of Wales, born in 2015, is the first royal girl to not be supplanted by the birth of a younger brother. (There is a story that, as a child, Queen Elizabeth II used to pray that her parents would give her a brother so she wouldn't have to be the monarch.)
So, who is in the Line of Succession, today?
Upon the accession of King Charles III, the first seven people in the line are his descendants. First his oldest son William Prince of Wales and his three children in birth order followed by his second son Prince Harry Duke of Sussex and his two children. The next 16 are the other descendants of Queen Elizabeth II. The next six are the additional descendants of King George VI via the late Princess Margaret. Then, there are 33 additional male-line descendants of King George V. In this part of the line, three people are skipped because they are confirmed Catholics but Prince Michael of Kent, whose wife is Catholic, was restored to the line by the Succession to the Crown Act 2013. After that the line moves to the descendants of Mary Princess Royal and Louise Princess Royal before shifting over to the King of Norway. Although other monarchies specifically bar the sovereign of a foreign state, the UK does not. So, if about 100 very specific people die and/or convert to Catholicism, King Harald of Norway could also become King of the United Kingdom, thanks to his British grandmother. The monarch, ex-monarchs, and claimants of Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia, Germany, and Russia are also in the line. The Spanish royals are descended from Electress Sophia, so they could get in line if they leave the Catholic Church.
Governing UK Royal Titles
Traditionally, children have derived their titles from their fathers. In the many centuries that monarch's daughters married kings and princes, there was no need for princesses to transmit royal status or titles to their children. The princesses married into another royal house, and their children had titles from that royal family. However, these styles and honors are given or withheld at the pleasure of the monarch.
This wasn't a particularly big deal until Queen Victoria had a particularly big family. With her plethora of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to marry off, Victoria decided Serene Highnesses and members of the nobility were suitable spouses. The princesses still got to be princesses and initially there weren't any offspring who weren't at least princelings. That is until her granddaughter Princess Louise of Wales married the Earl Fife, a Scottish peer. Victoria gave him a bump in status making him the 1st Duke of Fife but their children were a marquess and two ladies. No problem for Victoria. When she was succeeded by her son King Edward VIII in 1901, he did not like the fact that any of his grandchildren did not have princely titles, so he fixed it by granting Louise, his eldest daughter, the title Princess Royal and making her surviving children HH Princess Alexandra of Fife and HH Princess Louise of Fife. His son and heir King George V had an opposite point of view. He thought the British Royal House, which was under criticism for being too German in the midst of World War I, also had two many princelings and princesses hanging about. So, in addition to changing the name of the royal family to the House of Windsor, he issued the 1917 Letters Patent. He didn't deprive his nieces or any of his cousins of their titles, but he certainly didn't mind if the ladies, like Maud of Fife, relinquished them when they married men who weren't themselves royals.
1917 Letters Patent
In order to limit the quickly expanding number of British royals, King George V issued Letters Patent (a document issued by a monarch to grant a right) in 1917. This document says that the following people were entitled to royal status (HRH) and princely titles:
- the children of a monarch
- the male-line grandchildren of monarch (so not the children of Princesses of the Blood)
- the oldest son of the oldest son of the Prince of Wales
In the wake of the fire at Windsor Castle, three divorces among Queen Elizabeth's children, and questions about how to finance the Royal Family and the Monarchy, senior royals and advisers formed the Way Ahead Group to strategize how to modernize for the future. Greatly influenced by the future (now current) king Charles, the issue of titles and royal status quickly came to the forefront. Charles was (and likely still is) in agreement with his great-grandfather that too many royal princes and princesses can create a burden and provide more opportunities for public scrutiny and criticism. For some time, there even seemed to be a question of whether his brother Prince Andrew's daughters would keep their status. They did, but they were also relegated to the awkward position of being non-working royals. In the meantime, Charles' youngest brother Prince Edward, who did not marry until 1999, was satisfied to take on a kind of half-in, half-out status while he and his wife focused primarily on pursuing private careers. At the time of their wedding, three relevant items were announced:
- Queen Elizabeth created him The Earl of Wessex
- his children would not be styled according the 1917 Letters Patent as male-line grandchildren of a monarch but as children of an Earl
- in the fullness of time (basically after the deaths of both of his parents), he would be created The Duke of Edinburgh
All of this ties into the so-called "Slimmed Down Monarchy" apparently favored by the new King. He sees that the entirely sober and sensible system introduced in 1917 has grown too unwieldy with royal grandchildren of King George V still carrying out royal duties today in their 70s and 80s and receiving financial support for those duties while sitting as far away from the throne as #56 in the Line of Succession. Most people don't even know these first cousins of our dearly departed Queen exist. Granting fewer royal titles and styles means in the future, there will be a small number of Royal Highnesses, positioned very near the throne, supporting the monarch. Meanwhile the people who are by no means every going to get near acceding to the Crown, won't be wondering whether to put HRH on their cubicles as they take up 9 to 5 jobs in the City to support themselves.
Royal status and titles are entirely within the gift of the current monarch. Titles of nobility (like Duke of York or Duke of Sussex, as not-so-random examples) cannot be simply removed once granted as these are then governed by Parliament and can only be removed by Parliament. On the other hand, the monarch can grant an HRH (Philip 1947), withhold it (Wallis 1936), and take it away (Diana and Sarah 1992). The monarch can also decide who is and who is not a prince or princess. So, it is within King Charles III's authority to make all of his grandchildren (or none of them) royal. And, as much as I wish he would have Archie and Lili use royal titles, here are the reasons why I think he won't:
- Prince Edward's children don't use royal titles.
- Throughout their lives, Archie (currently #6) and Lili (#7) will move further and further down the line of succession, making them less and less relevant to the functioning of the Monarchy. (The current Duke of Gloucester was born at #6 and is now at #30.)
- Their parents previously declined to use the courtesy titles afforded to them as the children of a Duke, by which Archie would be The Earl of Dumbarton and his sister Lady Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor.
- If Charles intended Harry's children to have royal titles, the easiest time to have made such an announcement would have been the 2012 Letters Patent, which could have extended royal status to all future grandchildren of Charles Prince Wales instead of just to the children of William Duke of Cambridge.
- The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are no longer working royals and are not even living in the United Kingdom. Their children can lead far more normal lives without titles.